Not everyone subscribes to the hoary old maxim that school days are the best of your life, but even for those who do, along comes “In Loco Parentis” to prove that they could have been better. Set in and around the loving, liberally managed prep school of Headfort in idyllic County Kells, Ireland, Neasa Ní Chianáin’s gentle but keen-eyed documentary celebrates contemporary, constructive methods of elementary education, while also taking cozy comfort in the more longstanding aspects of the institution — not least in its selection of veteran teaching couple Amanda and John Leyden as our chief guides through Headfort’s venerable stone-built walls. There’s considerable poignancy in the contrast between this eccentric pair’s mutual sense that their lives are winding down and the vast, still-unshaped futures of their young charges, but Ní Chianáin’s film largely resists sentimentality of the “Greatest Love of All” variety.
Playing in the World Documentary competition at Sundance following a well-received premiere at last year’s IDFA fest, “In Loco Parentis” should prove sufficiently amusing and affecting to net some boutique distribution and VOD exposure. Comparisons may be drawn to Nicolas Philibert’s beloved 2003 schoolhouse study “Être et avoir,” though “Parentis” is likely a little too ungathered in form and focus to break out in the same way. (The 100-minute running time, while hardly taxing, could also use tightening.) The further this Irish production (with Spanish input) travels from home, meanwhile, the more unreservedly charmed audiences may be. Domestically, a proportion of viewers will be inclined to resist its glowing portrait of progressive but undeniably privilege-based private schooling — in which we see top pupils ushered through to such elite English institutions as Eton and Harrow. The politics and practicalities of this model are never addressed in a film dedicated firmly to education’s rewards rather than its hefty price.
Taken on those terms, however, it’s hard not to be moved by the dedication and affection that the Headfort staff — given a bit more individual scrutiny here than the children — put into their work, as the film follows them through the academic year. It’s a rough structure that begins and ends in tears: the homesick weeping of new first-grade boarders at the outset, though by the end, as older pupils scatter off into separate high schools, it’s the farewells that are moist-eyed. It’s a cycle entirely familiar to the Leydens, who have taught and lived on the campus for over 40 years, and who count the school’s cheery, forward-thinking principal, Dermot, among their past students.
Patient, sweet-natured English teacher Amanda, whose eyebrow piercing hints at a rebel spirit beneath her mumsy, heart-patterned knitwear, has returned to teaching after a hiatus and can barely contain her excited adoration of the children in her care. Disheveled Latin expert John has a brusquer manner with the kids, for which he is frequently chided by his wife. Yet his level of kindly commitment emerges in his coaching of the school’s enthusiastically tone-deaf band, whose lively sets run the gamut from Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” to, in a selection ironically betraying their supervisor’s age, The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” In the Leydens’ home, a comfortably messy staff cottage where two huge, spoiled dogs rule the roost, we’re party to the couple’s daily complaints and concerns over their students, though the degree to which they thrive on their work is never in doubt.
Gradually, as Mirjam Strugalla’s ambling, unforced editing separates a handful of children’s arcs from the rest, we gain a greater understanding of what drives their teachers. Subtle evolutions over the course of the year, like the slow social thawing of shy, stern, academically gifted Eliza or the confidence gained by a struggling boy, Ted, via a well-received turn in the school play, are taken as major victories by John and Amanda. Per the title, in the absence of the kids’ parents, we see the teachers’ role become a more attentive and protective one.
Though the gaze of director/d.p. Ní Chianáin’s sensitive, soft-lensed camera seems all-encompassing, having been granted extensive access to the school’s classrooms, staff meetings and even the busy, chatty dormitories, one begins to wonder if we’ve missed any pupils who haven’t blossomed in this near-magical environment, complete with lushly wooded grounds where children can run, jump and climb freely. (Or, in a rare, droll nod to less charmed modern life, play cellphone games when they’d rather be indoors.) Perhaps not, though at a time when social “bubbles” have come in for cultural criticism, “In Loco Parentis” makes a kind of case for isolating innocents in a purely beautiful, purely benevolent environment.
In keeping with this spirit, the filmmaking is delicately executed in every department. Eschewing any visual or graphic gimmicks, Ní Chianáin keeps the look airily naturalistic throughout, lighting and framing Headfort’s rather imposing architecture — which could look darkly austere in a different film — with a consistent emphasis on its breathing room. Eryck Abecassis’s fragile, shimmery score, full of unusual, whistling instrumentation, is an asset throughout, particularly as an antidote to the more raucous playing of the Headfort in-house band.